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Two Competing Moralities

by Paul Kurtz

The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 21, Number 3.

We are told by the critics of secular humanist morality that, without belief in God, immorality would engulf us. This position is held by many conservative, even centrist, political leaders today. They say that society needs a religious framework to maintain the general order. But they are, I submit, profoundly mistaken.

What they overlook is the fact that humanist ethics is so deeply ingrained in human culture that even religious conservatives accept many (if not all) of its ethical premises-though, like Molière's Bourgeois Gentilhomme, who was surprised when he was told that he spoke and wrote in prose, many people will be equally surprised to discover this.

May I point out five aspects of humanist morality that are widely accepted today. Humanist ethics is not some recent invention; it has deep roots in world civilization, and it can be found in the great thinkers, from Aristotle and Confucius to Spinoza, Adam Smith, Mill, and Dewey. What are these philosophers saying?

First, that the pursuit of happiness-eudaimonia, as the Greeks called it-is a basic goal of ethical life, both for the individual and society. This point of view came into prominence during the Renaissance; it is expressed in the Declaration of Independence, and indeed in virtually every modern democratic system of ethics. People may dispute about the meaning of happiness, but nonetheless most humanists say that the good life involves satisfying and pleasurable experience, creative actualization, and human realization. We wish a full life in which the fruits of our labor contribute to a meaningful existence. We recognize that religious believers want salvation in the next world, but few today would want unhappiness in this life.

A second principle is the recognition that each person has equal dignity and value, and that he or she ought to be considered as an end and not a mere means. This doctrine was implicit in the American and French democratic revolutions; it was used to overthrow slavery and hierarchical societies, and it is appealed to in order to eliminate racial, ethnic, religious, and sexual discrimination.

A third value of humanism is the ideal of moral freedom. Humanists defend free societies that allow wide latitude for individuals to express their own needs, desires, interests, goals, and their diverse visions of the good life, however idiosyncratic they may be. Nevertheless, humanist ethics emphasizes the higher intellectual, moral, and æsthetic values, and it focuses on moral growth and development as essential to happiness.

Fourth, this implies that we tolerate the diversity of values and principles in different individuals and groups in society. We need not necessarily accept different lifestyles; we simply allow them to co-exist. Moral freedom does not necessarily mean license or corruption; it does not mean a libertine style of life; for there is concern not only with freedom but with virtue. It does not condone the fleshpot, the shallow or egotistical individual; for even while humanist morality maintains that individuals should be allowed to pursue their own ends without repression, it asks that they learn to behave responsibly, that they cultivate the common moral decencies, and that their behavior be considerate of the needs of others. That means that they will develop an appreciation for the basic shared moral virtues of a civilized community-truth, sincerity, integrity, fairness, empathy, etc. This presupposes the development of moral character in the young; for self-control and an altruistic regard for others are essential for the full flowering of the individual.

Fifth, humanist ethics focuses on human reason as the basis of ethical choice. This is insufficiently understood by dogmatic religionists who fail to appreciate the fact that there are often difficult choices to be made in life; though we may share principles and values, we need to recognize that society is undergoing rapid change and that new moral problems may emerge. Often we must choose between the lesser of two evils or the greater of two goods, not between good and evil. Thus there are the classical moral dilemmas that all individuals in society encounter, in which competing values and principles contend. Humanists maintain that in such situations ethical inquiry ought to be emphasized, and that a reflective moral intelligence-aware of one's own interests and values and also of the needs and interests of others-should seek to negotiate differences and work out compromises. Humanists believe that science and technology, if used wisely, can help us to improve human life and contribute to the common welfare. Thus, in our view, ethical rationality is essential for moral growth and development.

In any case, humanist values and principles underlie three powerful social movements that have emerged in modern society, especially since the Renaissance. Let me enunciate them. 

  1. Secularization: The institutions of modern society have sought to liberate morality from repressive theocratic creeds. This entails a separation of church and state as a precondition of freedom from authoritarian or totalitarian control.
  2. Democracy: This is a further precondition for humanist morality to flourish; for it is in a free, open, and democratic society that individuals are allowed to make their own decisions and universal human rights are defended, both on the social and the planetary scale. Democracy entails an open market of ideas, rule by majorities, and the right of dissent.
  3. Consumerism: Modern economic systems are predicated on the assumption that individual consumers should have the freedom to produce, purchase, and consume goods and services of their own choice. This has led to an enormous improvement of the human condition, the extension of the fruits of industry and of happiness to all citizens.

Yet many religionists today decry humanist ethics and they proclaim absolute declarations and creeds. In the past, they often opposed democracy and moral freedom, tolerance, and respect for diversity. Many emphasize still today the virtue of obedience rather than of individual autonomy. Humanists respond that belief in God is no guarantee of moral virtue. Indeed, devoted believers will often kill each other over differences in doctrine or authority, and they oppose each other on issues concerning public morality: some are for and some against capital punishment, war or peace, the rights of women, minorities, euthanasia, sexual freedom, etc. Dogmatic religious doctrines especially set people against each other, leading to hypocrisy, greed, policies of retribution and punishment, chauvinism, and pride, rather than an empathetic moral regard for the needs of others. Thus there is a genuine humanist alternative to such doctrinaire points of view, which needs to be appreciated.

I submit that humanist ethical ideals, which emphasize the pursuit of happiness, moral freedom, tolerance, moral responsibility, and rational moral inquiry, are basic for social peace and ethical improvement, and that both religious and nonreligious people can share these values. To castigate humanist ethics would endanger the hard-won gains to achieve a secular state, a democratic society, and a prosperous economy serving all the citizens of society. Shall we risk the advances of social, political, and economic progress in the name of an authoritarian creed? To reject humanist morality would do precisely that: It would repeal the modern world.

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